Being a teenager is a challenge — that goes without saying. Being a teenager during a global pandemic — that’s what one might call an extraordinary challenge. And if you’re a teenager during a pandemic who’s recently been in juvenile detention? That’s a challenge that might seem insurmountable.

Enter the Adobe Program, a unique initiative at the University of New Mexico that helps teens thrive — in many more ways than one. Launched in 2017 by UNM’s Institute for Resilience, Health & Justice (IRHJ), the program gives comprehensive support not only to youths who have been incarcerated but also to their extended families, providing the tools they need to navigate the stresses of daily life, which are more pressing today than ever.

A child’s success is largely determined at home, the program knows. And for most incarcerated teens, home has been a troubled place. The vast majority of youths in New Mexico’s juvenile justice system have been exposed to physical or sexual abuse, neglect, violence, substance abuse, mental illness or other severe childhood traumas, which — if no help arrives — can profoundly derail a child’s life. Adverse childhood experiences, as the traumas are known, increase the risk of failing in school, committing crimes and getting incarcerated. When teens leave detention, it can be especially difficult for them to get their bearings. 

The pandemic has made their lives even more precarious. Many of the teens’ family members are dealing with lost jobs, lost housing, food insecurity or other crises. 

To address this, the Adobe Program offers a wide variety of “wrap-around” services, including medical and mental health care, educational and housing help, legal advice from the UNM School of Law clinic, and help with everything from utility bills and food supplies to employment. Led by primary care physician Andrew Hsi, a professor of pediatrics, the program gives extensive help to juveniles while supporting the key people in their lives, including parents, grandparents, siblings and others. In some cases, Adobe works with three generations of a family. 

In recent months the program has been working with 140 to 170 youth clients, most of them between the ages of 11 and 18. About 70 percent are male, and the average length of time in the program is about a year and a half.

Much of Adobe’s success is based on the staff’s ability to forge close connections with teens and relatives. How do they do that in a pandemic? To find out, Searchlight New Mexico caught up with Elizabeth Castro, Adobe’s senior program manager.

Castro has been with Adobe since its inception, when, for lack of staff, she was both designing the program and jumping in to work as a “navigator,” managing the cases of Adobe’s earliest clients. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Searchlight: Let’s start with a basic question: Why does Adobe extend services to entire families?

You can’t have a 13-year-old who is using heroin to go home to a mom who’s also using heroin and expect that 13-year-old to do okay. If you don’t address the parent’s stuff alongside the 13-year-old’s stuff, it’s never going to work.

And so, while it is more complicated to focus on the family, it’s really important to us. … You know, sometimes we’re serving more than two generations. It makes a difference.


Q: The youths you work with are some of the most vulnerable members of society. How is the pandemic increasing the risks they face?

There’s a lot of risk because a lot of our kiddos have a really unstable home life. Not a lot of our kids come from two-income families with stable housing and no childhood trauma. So a big risk right now is that a lot of our families are more unstable than they were before the coronavirus — and they weren’t stable before.

Another risk is the fact that we aren’t able to make those personal connections like we were able to before. It was really helpful when we would go into YSC [the Bernalillo County Youth Services detention center] and talk with a kiddo in person before they were released, and we would have a care plan set up before they were even discharged. And now that’s not happening.


Q: Teenagers who’ve suffered trauma can find it difficult to forge healthy relationships. How do you find navigators who can connect to them?

We have a really interesting and diverse employee population. And I say that meaning that some of our navigators have come from the juvenile justice system. Now they’re in their 40s and they’ve “been there, done that” —  that kind of thing. We have a navigator who was a probation supervisor for, like, 25 years. And then we have people who are just really interested in helping youth. When we assign a kid to a navigator there’s a long thought process that goes into that assignment.


Q: How has the pandemic disproportionately impacted the population you serve?

It’s not so much that they are a high-risk population that won’t socially distance, it’s that they’re part of a population that can’t socially distance. I think that’s a really important distinction.


Q: You’re referring to clients who live in crowded housing, or with extended families? 

They also have jobs that are considered essential. And they have to rely on neighbors to take care of younger kids.


Q: The pandemic has forced you to switch to phone calls, texts and online meetings, instead of meeting in person. How is that going?

You know, we’re dealing with teenagers, so technology is definitely something that they’re comfortable with. But I do think that our navigators are having a little bit of a hard time, partially because we haven’t been able to access a HIPAA-secure Zoom for our non-clinical staff [such as navigators and educators].

So for them, it’s text messaging and it’s phone calls. And, you know, it’s really hard to read the tone in a text message. And so a lot of our navigators are struggling with, ‘Did he mean this, or did he mean that?’ It’s difficult if you’re not seeing somebody face to face.


Q: What did your navigation services look like before COVID-19?

Navigation visits were primarily done either at the youth’s home or somewhere in the community. When we couldn’t meet at the home, we would meet at like a McDonald’s in the neighborhood, or a library — usually somewhere that has wi-fi, so the kids can hook up to the internet. Some of our navigators would meet at parks and they would play basketball [with clients] for an hour, especially when they’re trying to build those relationships and trying to get a teenager to trust them. 

Navigators can do everything from, like, setting up Medicaid transport [a ride to a health care appointment] to make sure that the kid gets to the clinic if they don’t have transportation. Recently, navigators have been doing a lot of food-box drop-offs, to make sure our kids have food. They also make sure that kids are getting Social Security benefits if they’re supposed to — those kinds of things.


Q: You’ve mentioned that virtual services have brought some unexpected benefits: Instead of struggling to find transportation to appointments, families can now get help from home. Will online services become a permanent fixture of the program?

A lot of our families do have a difficult time with transportation. So one of our main takeaways is that telemedicine works really well with this population. So much so that we’re in the process of writing a new grant to increase our capacity to do it long-term. That would give our navigators the ability to go out to the family home and provide them with an iPad … and then they can have therapy with one of our therapeutic providers via telehealth.


For years, New Mexico has been moving away from incarcerating juveniles in favor of alternative, community-based programs like yours. Has Bernalillo County been supportive?

Bernalillo County has really been at the forefront of the JDAI [Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative] movement. … I think that there is a lot of movement here specifically in this county to keep kids out of detention — because it doesn’t necessarily do any good.

Julia Sclafani joined Searchlight to cover health as a grant-funded Report for America Fellow. A California native, Julia comes to New Mexico by way of the Daily Pilot, a Los Angeles Times community publication...